When Health and Fitness Wasn’t a Thing

As a 98-pound weakling, small and thin, I was constantly reminded of my condition by the big ads on the back of practically every comic book I read—the Charles Atlas ads in which the big guy at the beach kicks sand on the skinny kid and his girlfriend, who, though she feels sorry for her thin friend, can’t resist being impressed by the muscular bully.

Charles Atlas promised that his exercises would make you strong enough to fight back. At that time, you couldn’t just Google exercises and get a set instantly, and I don’t think I ever actually did send off for the Atlas exercises, but I did order a book on jiu jitsu and learned how to use my opponent’s strength against him—by practicing on my sisters. The practice paid off one day downtown (we called it uptown) when I encountered the bully who had terrorized me since first grade and found out that he was even easier to throw around than my sisters.

In retrospect, it is interesting to recall that there was no such thing as health and fitness in our small town, no physical education except for athletes. When we started playing high school football and basketball and running track, we exercised until we dropped, which caused most of us to give up cigarettes and beer or anything else that might interfere with our ability to survive practice.

But adults didn’t exercise, or if they did, they didn’t call it that. They worked in their yards and gardens. Many did physical labor at their jobs. Women did all that and housework, too. But nobody who could afford a car walked anywhere—except Elizabeth Monfort, who came striding the three blocks from her home to school every morning to teach sixth grade, and Floyd Freeman, the retired tax collector, whose doctor, because of some malady perhaps having to do with circulation, had ordered Freeman to walk daily, which he did, and at any given moment in any place Freeman might come strolling by, gaining not only exercise but constant social interaction. 

And, oh yes: Carey Williams, our newspaper publisher, who did not drive and could be seen walking home from long days at the Linotype machine, disheveled and ink-stained.

Men and some women smoked cigarettes and ate fatty foods and never heard of hydration and subsided into whatever shape heredity and environment conspired to award them—shall we say stocky.

And it is sobering to look back further into the past and see photos of people, say at the beach, during the 1930s, where every one of them is slender—no pot bellies, no obesity. Sure, most people couldn’t afford enough food to get fat at that time, so the general populace was lean and hungry, and when the challenge of World War II came along, we had a fighting force ready to go against the Axis bullies. It was the ‘50s when we began to go slack.

Fast forward all these years, and people are much more health-conscious, much more likely to incorporate better diets and more exercise and adequate water into their daily lives. And running: I am always amazed at all the people out jogging, and I am flabbergasted at those who enjoy running so much that they pay money to run in a half marathon or a 5K. Happily, they turn that obsession into an annual party here that involves the neighborhoods and raises large sums of money to benefit AthFest Educates, which uses the proceeds to support music and arts education.

Personally, I have hated running ever since it was forced on me in high school. Fortunately, I enjoy walking and try to emulate Floyd Freeman regularly and hope to get back to the gym soon. And I do find, as I age gracefully (insert emoji), that whatever exercise I have engaged in over the years has a cumulative effect. In other words, whatever running, walking, exercises or martial arts you do strengthens your body for the long haul. I must add, though, that if I tried to throw you over my shoulder, I would only throw my shoulder out.

When Health and Fitness Wasn’t a Thing